Monday, 4 February 2019

A (Wintery) Ride around Ben Klibreck - 2nd February 2019



"There's tyres come in the post for you" - Not a text message to normally elicit nervous excitement.
"Which ones?" I asked
"Schwalbe Winter" was the response, it could have been the GP4Seasons I'd ordered.
"That was quick, I'll come for them at lunch time"
"I'm heading for Dundee, will bring them over"

That really was quick, I'd ordered them from Spa Cycles on the Wednesday and had them in time for setting off into the frozen north for a cycle that just wouldn't have happened without them.

Arrived in the nick of time
Friday night I leave work, the tyres are sitting in the boot of the car and snow starts to fall heavily as I drive up the A90.  I stop in a lay-by to check something and I get a message from Robbie about a jackknifed lorry at Keith on our route north west.  I checked it out and Google was suggesting a tolerable 18 minute delay.
Once I'd collected Robbie in Aberdeen, it was clear when travelling along the A96 why the lorry had jackknifed, a rough surface created by resurfacing in progress had turned into an icy mess on a descent. Thankfully it was now clear but the treacherous conditions meant it took until 10pm to get to Inverness where we were booked into the hostel.

We had both studied the weather forecast and determined that we needed to put the studded tyres on, getting to work outside the hostel reception, I had my first tyre on before Robbie had finished scooping the fluid out of his tubeless tyres but within seconds of removing the pump's chuck there was that dreaded sound of air escaping through a split valve base, lifting one of my spare tubes from my bag I started again on the front wondering what time Velocity opens in the morning.

Robbie, having got the tubeless tyres off and rims cleaned was now going through the pile of "new" tubes he's picked from his box of bike spares and was trying to find one that wasn't pre-punctured. My dubious choice of electrical tape for rim tape on my rear wheel added extra concern for the ride but it had survived 400km with imprints in the tube, so it was going to have to last long enough for me to purchase some tape. With bikes finally set up and breakfast ordered we retired for the night at near midnight.

Morning dawned, breakfast was eaten and we set off for the starting point at Tain. Robbie had suffered further deflation overnight and now had his last two usable inner tubes supporting his tyres; I went into Tesco to see if they had any. They didn't.

Our plan had been to follow organizer Andy Uttley's advice for the route and ride Anti-Clockwise, up the A9 to Helmsdale and then up Strath Ullie and over the muirs via the Garvault to Crask Inn before returning through Lairg and Bonar Bridge, but now with only 2 spare tubes between us, and with the only bike shop in the area in Ardgay we set off on the Clockwise version to get to the shop before the fairy caught us.

Rolling along the Dornoch Firth
Setting off along the south side of the Dornoch firth at 10am it was a late start for a 200, but it's not a particularly hilly route with just one big hill and descent with the odd bit of undulation so we didn't think we'd be pushing our limits too much. 
However almost instantly I realized I was in Zone 5 while seemingly just rolling along and had to back off, I quickly ascertained that I'd put my HRM on a tad low so it was thankfully a data error and after a bit of adjustment got a much more reasonable reading, however it was still high for just rolling along at a normal speed.


The winter tyres are heavy, they take a lot of energy to spin up, don't hold speed very well and with the Carbide spikes clattering away make an absolute racket!  As we clattered into Ardgay I spotted the building where the bike shop was the last time I was there, however it appeared to now be some sort of tartan shop. Worrying!
Thankfully a local woman spotted us looking at the shop and told us that "Heaven Bikes" had moved to the post office in Bonar Bridge, just across the Kyles of Sutherland.
I'm not sure I'd say the bike shop was in the Post Office, more that the Post Office was in the bike shop, where Chris had plenty of parts on sale including most importantly the items of use to us, 700x30c tubes and rim tape.

Passing Carbisdale Castle at Invershin
Despite a fairly flat route out to Bonar Bridge we'd only averaged 20kmh, with the shop stop we were down to 17kmh and we had the long drag up to Lairg and on to the Crask Inn to climb.
In Scottish Geographical terms this is the Far North, but in Norse terms at Bonar Bridge we entered the South Land from Ross.
Sutherland was part of lands controlled by the Jarl of Orkney to who this was the South before the Kingdom of the Isles and Mann was formed.
The road climbs and we push on into the desolation of central Sutherland.

Lairg
The railway, ever present either by our side  diverged from our route at Lairg, the village is spread out along the Shin in the shadow of the Lairg Dam; not only were we saying goodbye to the railway until Helmsdale but we were also saying goodbye to civilisation at the same time, from now the odd outposts along our route would be marking junctions or remote travellers rests rather than sizeable habitations.

The junction just out of Lairg demonstrated this perfectly, with the next nearest signed destination being Scourie, 41 miles away.



The Altnaharra road
The fold down signs were showing their "Road Ahead Closed  - Snow Drifts" message, but the actual Road Closed sign was leaning against the wall, the necessary cones pushed to either side of the road allowing passage.
The road becomes single track here and the passing places were filled with snow, we plugged on.  Occasionally the spikes went quiet or the back wheel gave a squirm in the snow but in the most part it was clear enough to maintain a decent enough speed as the road weaved through a landscape of snow and frozen rivers, on occasion I wanted to stop for a photo I couldn't capture on the go but chose to miss it in favour of maintaining momentum.


The Crask Inn
Eventually I spotted the trees I knew the Crask Inn was situated in and although they didn't have their sign up and the cars outside were submerged in snow, a tentative knock on the door revealed that the bar was tendered, the fire was roaring and the Vegetable Soup on offer was hot and delicious.
Of course I had the Victoria Sponge too.
The roasting bar room was hard to leave. The proprietor told us that Altnaharra may be "different" due to it being in a dip and about being snowed in only the previous day, or at least her husband was. She had been snowed out!

A clear bit of the descent to Altnaharra

From the Inn it's only a short climb to the start of the descent to Altnaharra and when we crested the summit we realized conditions were going to different here.Altnaharra vies with Braemar for the title of "Coldest Place in Scotland" this dip in the vast emptiness of the cleared interior of Sutherland showed its hand with rough snow and ice slowing our descent, now after our stop we were only just holding 15kmh and road conditions were deteriorating.
Robbie has ridden cyclocross so is used to road bikes moving in soft conditions, but I'm not and saw him rolling off into the distance as I struggled to get the hang of my squirming bike.


The Syre road junction, we decided to give it a bash
At Altnaharra the road turned to sheet ice on the approach to the bridge, I held my breath but the spikes gripped as I knew they would and crested the bridge without worry.
Just out of the village we found the turn for Syre, this was our first real point of concern as we were leaving the Primary gritting routes, should this road be impassable then it was game over, the Garvault control would be out of reach, the only options would be to ride the North Coast from Tongue or turn back.
The junction was snowy, and icy, and the rest of the road was pretty white, we chose to press on into the snow and see how it went, our tyres squirming and on occasion spinning.


Riding along Loch Naver
We stopped to drop some air from our tyres to get a bit more grip in the snow shortly afterwards and we were able to ride with care after that.  In the shade the road was snowy, and on the edges it was icy.  In the areas exposed to sun, despite the chill in the air a clear path had cleared through melt and so we could ride faster here.
Somehow we maintained a 16kmh average along the way to Syre despite in places resurfacing works providing bombholes and drop offs to deal with if not the 2hr delay threatened by the signs.



Garvault bound
At the Garvault road junction again things looked sketchy, the driver of a winter tyre shod pick-up told us that the road wasn't great but it was passable.  The initial climb facing west was covered in a shallow coating of snow just deep enough to overcome the limited grip of our road treaded tyres, the spikes having no value when there is no ice to grip.
At times the road camber sucked us down onto the verge, small ridges of snow kicked our wheels out to the side and cleared tracks sent us wiggling across the road to find the best speed. Eventually the Garvault loomed into view ahead, its white walls camouflaging it against the white hillside of Ben Griam Mór.

We already knew no one was in, and photographic evidence had been requested by Andy of the sign by the road as a substitute. We posed just long enough to get the pictures and crack on before we cooled down too much, the temperature was -8C and would be for a long time to come.

I knew that there are some estate houses not too far east of here and was hoping they'd cleared a route out to Kinbrace, which was a wish partially fulfilled as they'd cleared the road fully between the various estate buildings but had only left tracks out to the junction.  The lights of Kinbrace station lit the sky, but it was too late to catch a train South should we want to pack, but we also hoped things would get easier from here.

The descent down Strath Ullie was a mix of fast clean road and an icy mess, at one point while riding a clean tyre track at speed I caught the ridge of snow with my back tyre and got a bit of a wiggle on, thankfully gaining control after the fright. A farmer tending his sheep passed us in his canopy pick-up on a number of occasions during the descent and expressed his amusement with a jocular evening as he passed me for the 3rd time.

Finally down at sea level in Helmsdale we piled into the shop to warm up and eat, the talkative shop girl more than happy for us to eat her stock as she told us about growing up in the area and her work.

When we left the shop our drinks bottles had frozen completely, I had plugged my power bank into my Wahoo while we ate and gassed in the shop and this affected the recorded temperature but I had recorded -8C on arrival rising to -4C before reaching the coast where it "warmed" to -3C.

We had over Nine and a Half hours on the clock and hadn't yet reached the 100 mile mark, but from Helmsdale the route rises and falls along the cost back towards Tain on a trunk road that receives 24hr treatment so we knew the surface would be good for a bit more speed.
Riding along the coast and through villages there was a bit of warmth in the air, but we still had to stop repeatedly to consume some of our Isotonic Slush Puppies as we counted down the villages, Brora passed without ceremony, Golspie with the bastard on the hill hidden in the darkness and across Loch Fleet on "The Mound" a causeway and bridge from Telford's time that was considered an amazing feat of engineering and a significant shortening of the route along the coast.

On the A9, in the dark but almost home.
The route sheet indicated taking a slightly longer route on the minor road along the coast to Dornoch Village and then towards the bridge over the Dornoch Firth, a good idea on a nice day but we chose, quiet as it was to stick with the A9.

One of the reasons for the 5km diversion became obvious with the 95m climb to Poles, a drag at this time of the ride, but the roll down to the bridge was worth it in the end.  Crossing the bridge we knew there wasn't far to go with the lights of Tain glowing in the vicinity and we started to think about where to control.



At the Burgh sign we took photos just in case then rolled into town to find an ATM, the first we found had no receipts.  Further into town at the other ATM we waited for some of the local night life to obtain more beer tokens, discovering once again there were no receipts there either.
We weren't sure whether to roll down to Tesco or up to ASDA to see if they had an outdoor ATM, but Robbie spotted that the bar of the St Duthus Hotel was still open, who allowed us to stagger in for a celebratory drink.


Looking back from the Crash Inn

On the road up to the Crask, rivers frozen.



The drag to Lairg

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